Al Qaeda in North Africa takes new tack amid losses
The twin suicide bombings in Algeria’s capital that took at least 37 lives last week have given the enigmatic militant group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb a sharp burst of publicity.
But experts say the reality is more complex than the propaganda or media reports depicting an overwhelming and ubiquitous menace.
In fact, the Algerian military has recently inflicted damage on the group, chopping away at its rural strongholds and capturing or slaying leaders, experts say. Moreover, the network has suffered from infighting and struggled to mold a North Africa-wide offshoot of Al Qaeda, according to authorities.
“Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has not been able to show it has achieved its announced goal of regional federation,” said a senior British anti-terrorism official. “I am not seeing real operational control by Al Qaeda central.”
As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Algiers on Tuesday to pay homage to 17 employees killed at a U.N. complex there, North African and European security forces were on alert against a network striving to reassert itself. The strikes against the U.N. and the Constitutional Court continued a strategic shift from guerrilla combat against Algerian security forces to an Iraq-style campaign of suicide attacks and roadside bombings against national and foreign targets.
A video released hours later declared that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is stronger than ever, a North African legion waging Osama bin Laden’s war on “crusaders” and “apostates.” The rhetoric makes Western authorities fearful about attacks on their interests in North Africa or Europe, according to investigators and experts in both regions.
Experts believe the Algiers bombings were a gambit by Abdelmalek Droukdel, the network’s leader, to demonstrate viability and overcome battlefield defeats by adopting a new form of warfare. With skillful propaganda, target selection and militants willing to die, even a weakened network can have an international impact and, in some ways, become more dangerous.
“They showed they can still carry out a massacre in a heavily guarded area of the capital,” said Louis Caprioli of the GEOS security consulting firm, a retired anti-terrorism chief of France’s DST intelligence agency. “But it is complicated. Militarily, they have had many losses in the countryside.
“Droukdel had the malevolent genius to realize he couldn’t succeed militarily, so he chooses an international opening. He wants to turn Algeria into a land of jihad like Afghanistan or Iraq.”
The video that claimed responsibility for the blasts last week also challenged reports of disarray, calling them “myths.”
The network was once known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, the product of a split in Islamic militant groups that fought a bloody civil war against the government in the 1990s. Last year, the group pledged allegiance to Bin Laden, renamed itself and shifted focus from the disciplined paramilitary fight it had waged against police and the military for years. Instead, Droukdel unleashed a more indiscriminate, Iraq-style campaign with a tactic that was new in Algeria: suicide bombings.
Six such bombings this year have killed more than 100 people, many of them civilians. In an assassination attempt in September, police confronted an attacker wearing an explosives vest under his track suit shortly before a visit by President Abdel- aziz Bouteflika to a town southeast of Algiers. The man killed 20 people when he blew himself up.
The group has also attacked convoys of foreign companies, attempted to kidnap French airport executives, dispatched fighters to Iraq, and trained North African militants in the deserts of southern Algeria and Mali. In immigrant communities of southern Europe, extremist cells connected to the network are increasingly made up of a mix of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians, a senior French intelligence official said.
Nonetheless, Droukdel has not achieved his vision of a coordinated network that would stretch from Morocco to Libya, investigators said. And the links to the core leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan are more ideological than operational, they said.
“They proclaim their federations, but the reality is more difficult,” a senior Italian anti-terrorism official said. “We should not give the threat dimensions it does not have.”
Significant leaders have been killed by security forces, including a militant in charge of operations outside Algeria. In November, a police raid discovered a cache of weapons and explosives being readied for attacks in the wealthy, high-security Hydra neighborhood of Algiers.
Nonetheless, the network was agile enough to pull off last week’s attacks, one on the U.N. building in the Hydra neighborhood. The bomber, 64-year-old Ibrahim Abu Uthman, was one of the oldest Islamic militants to have committed a suicide attack.
Some analysts attribute his involvement to a dearth of volunteers. But European investigators, noting the bomber was an 11-year guerrilla veteran from the same village as Droukdel, think he may have been a trusted fighter chosen to help ensure a successful operation.
As the group escalates its campaign against foreign targets, investigators fear that Algeria’s former colonial master, France, is a top target. France has been threatened by Al Qaeda leaders who single out President Nicolas Sarkozy because of his pro-American bent.
“The risk is much stronger from Algeria than elsewhere,” said the senior French intelligence official.